Growing Up at Home: A Rise in Childhood Obesity Has Experts Worried

With many kids spending another semester at home, health experts are sounding the alarm on childhood obesity. Causing everything from trauma to social isolation, the pandemic has upended life for just about every child in the country. These changes can lead to all sorts of unhealthy habits, including binge eating, insomnia, and a lack of physical activity. This could lead to a wave of negative health effects later on in life. Obesity is also considered a risk factor for COVID-19.

Pediatricians say we need to do more to counter these trends before they get worse, especially as we head into the fall and winter. Find out what this means for educators, parents, and providers.

Backpedaling on Childhood Obesity

As you might expect, the pandemic is having a negative effect on our nation’s children. Pediatricians say their patients aren’t getting the exercise and support they need to lead a healthy lifestyle. Based on the latest findings from the National Survey of Children’s Health, about one in seven children have met the criteria for childhood obesity since 2016.

Experts are worried that the pandemic could undo any progress we’ve made on this issue. Over the last ten years, the rate of childhood obesity has declined slightly, thanks to healthy school lunch programs and public health awareness campaigns, but it’s expected to jump in 2020.

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a professor at Northwestern University who studies the effects of policies aimed at alleviating child poverty, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, says, “We were making slow and steady progress until this. It’s likely we will have wiped out a lot of the progress that we’ve made over the last decade in childhood obesity.”

The U.S. education system didn’t have a great track record before the pandemic, and the spread of COVID-19 will likely make things worse. Just half of public schools offer physical education classes, which means these kids are likely on their own when it comes to staying fit.

That’s why Jim Baugh created PHIT America, a program for parents and educators that’s designed to get kids moving all over the country. The group started circulating a petition in August that would require 30 minutes of recess at least three times a week for all students in the U.S. Baugh notes that America ranks 47th in the world when it comes to childhood fitness.

Dr. Lisa Denike, who chairs pediatrics for Northwest Permanente in Portland, Oregon, has seen the effects of the pandemic first-hand. She says, “We’ve seen kids gain 10 to 20 pounds in a year, who may have had a BMI as a preteen in the 50 or 75th percentile and are now in the 95th percentile. That’s a significant crossing of percentiles into obesity.”

Denike says she’s concerned about one of her 11-year-old patients, who’s already gained around 40 pounds during the pandemic. With Type 2 diabetes on the rise in children, she thinks it’s only a matter of time before she has to deliver the bad news. While he doesn’t have diabetes now, “I suspect he will in the coming years as his parents already have it,” she says.

She explains that it’s all about leading a good example for kids at home. “He’s home in an environment struggling with parents with the same issues rather than learning in health class and having activity outside. Kids are reflections of what their parents do.”

COVID-19 and Childhood Obesity

Keeping kids healthy is also fundamental to our fight against COVID-19, or at least it should be, says Zhen Yan, a researcher at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Yan’s been studying how exercise can lower our risk of serious illness. “If we want to protect our kids from deadly COVID-19, we must increase their physical activity and get them healthier. Too many kids already have preexisting conditions such as obesity,” he says.

We know that obesity also can increase a person’s risk for COVID-19 complications, in addition to hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, and cancer.

Just last week, the CDC expanded its definition of those at elevated risk of severe COVID-19 disease and death to include people with a BMI of 25 to 30. Before this update, only those with a BMI of 30 and higher were included. 

This means that around 72% of all Americans are at higher risk of severe disease based on their weight alone.

Childhood obesity is also a leading indicator of obesity later on in life, which can lead to a lifetime of illness and disease. In the U.S., childhood obesity alone is estimated to cost $14 billion annually in direct health expenses, while obesity at all ages incurs around $147 billion in medical expenses each year.

Every Child Is Different

The pandemic is affecting families in all sorts of ways. Some children may be more vulnerable to binge eating if they are left unsupervised all day. Others may start to imitate their parents if everyone is glued to electronic devices. 

Children in urban areas may not have access to spaces designed for physical activity. Economic stress can lead to poor nutrition and food insecurity, while anxiety and depression can lead to, or worsen, eating disorders in some children.

A study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine shows that the likelihood of binge eating during the pandemic was almost three times higher for people who experienced weight stigma before the pandemic than those who hadn’t.

These trends are also playing out differently among minority households. Black and Hispanic families are much more likely to live below the federal poverty line than white Americans, and their eating habits can suffer as a result. 

“We know that families switch to lower-quality food when they face food insecurity – that is, more calorie-dense foods and less variety,” says Schanzenbach, director of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research.

Keeping kids healthy during these unprecedented times can be a challenge, but we all need to make time to exercise, even if we’re stuck at home. If you’re a parent, educator, or provider, remember that children learn by example. If you sit in front of the computer all day, your kids will likely do the same. 

From local food banks to growing your own food, do your best to make sure your kids or patients have access to fresh fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and complex carbohydrates. Small changes can make a world of difference.

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